Before going into the details of Salvadorian experience during the civil war, let’s get a better understanding of the background of El Salvador. El Salvador is a Central American country whose borders are linked with Pacific Ocean, Guatemala and Honduras. The factor of discrimination still exists between the rich and the poor citizens of El Salvador (Wood 2003). Today, the major and most critical issues affecting the financial stability and development of El Salvador are violence, hostility and poverty. The free trade agreement 2006 with the US has provided El Salvador with many trade opportunities by removing all taxes on imports. At the same time, El Salvador struggles with a legacy of poverty and civil war (DiPiazza 2007).
In the last decade of the 19th century, coffee emerged as the major cash crop for El Salvador which contributed nearly 95% of the country's whole income. Regrettably and unluckily, this income was restricted to just 1.8% of the total population of El Salvador which shows that El Salvador was greatly dominated by the factor of discrimination between the rich and the poor classes of citizens. As the time passed by, this discrimination factor between the classes became so much serious that it laid the foundations of the Central American Socialist Party in 1932. Central American Socialist Party was formed by Augustin Farabundo Marti who led the peasants and other native citizens against the Salvadorian government. In response to the movement led by the newly formed party, the government of El Salvador provided a great support to the military in order to crush down those individuals who were either associated with the movement or supported the uprising. As a consequence of the military operation, almost 30,000 people lost their live including Marti, who was first arrested by the military and then put to death by the Salvadorian government.
The struggle of Central American Socialist Party sustained through 1970s which gave rise to the guerilla war between the citizens and the military. In 1979, military junta put an end to the Salvadorian government with a promise to handle the critical conditions of the country and improve the living standards of the citizens of El Salvador. But the junta failed to fulfill the promises made to the public which raised a need to create such a movement which could defend public rights and put an end to all kind of violations and other discriminating factors. So for this purpose, leftist parties of El Salvador united with five major guerrilla groups in order to form Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which was supposed to harmonize and organize the efforts against the US backed Salvadoran government to protect the public rights.
Salvadoran radical left showed a very fractious reaction to the progression of reformist junta governments at the earliest stages of the movement. The Moscow-line Communist Party of El Salvador, Partido Comunista de El Salvador, showed their initial support for the first junta. Impulses like collaborationists were condemned by groups like Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP). ERP also renewed the call for revolution. Then the dialogs took place for the resolution of issues between Colonel Majano’s group and active members of the radical left, but they did not become successful and all efforts to include the radical left in the government went ineffective because of unstable position of Majano within the military, and the helplessness and failure of the junta governments to eradicate the right-wing violence.
This failure of dialogs between the Majano’s group and the radical left was seen by some observers as a major inadequacy and inability of the reformist juntas regarding resolution of conflicts. But it was also noted by the observers that none of the conflicting groups were serious in resolving the issue because both groups lacked the political will which was needed to reach any kind of settlement.
There were some foreign influences on the guerrilla groups which played a great role in convincing the leadership regarding the need to put an end to old ideological quarrels for the purpose of doing a well synchronized and cooperative effort to stimulate the citizens of El Salvador. The Salvadoran guerrilla groups kept in mind the example of Nicaraguan revolution which not only served as an inspiration for them but also as a plan of work. Nicaragua revolution educated them the importance of unity and hard struggle for a successful revolution as it showed that if a revolution includes people from all sectors and departments of life, it is beneficial not only for the success of the revolution but also for the stability and development of any nation. So keeping Nicaragua revolution in mind, the Salvadorans guerrilla groups recognized a need and goal regarding unity and incorporation of people from all sectors. But that goal was not achieved by the guerrilla groups until Fidel Castro of Cuba took charge of the issue. A negotiation process started in December 1979 which ended in May 1980. At the end of the negotiations, major guerrilla groups declared their unity and started a revolution named Direccion Revolucionario Unificada (DRU), and got success in bringing all groups to a single platform in order to get organized for the purpose of launching a result oriented movement.
Some of the opposition parties including mass organizations were following a little convergent path from that of military strategy of the left. It was April 1980, when CRM established the Revolutionary Democratic Front, which was the mass organizations’ group. This revolutionary front brought together all those groups which were linked with Direccion Revolucionario Unificada. Some other groups were also included in the Revolutionary Democratic Front. They included DRU guerrilla groups, Ungo's MNR, Popular Liberation Movement, forty-nine labor unions, Zamora's MPSC and some student groups. When FDR political leaders found moral and political support in Mexico and Western European democratic parties, they began to travel in and out of the country. At the same time, a campaign consisting of strikes was started by the mass organizations through insurrection in order to pave way for left‘s assumption of power.
Enrique Alvarez, a famous leader of FDR, was shot dead by a right-wing death squad in November 1980. Five other members were also killed along with the leader. It was a very serious incident which happened with FDR and it contributed to FDR’s unification with DRU. It is true that there was a huge level of cooperation between the guerrilla groups and the mass organizations but the leadership of the groups like MNR and MPSC wanted an independent path with different strategies. But due to the murder of FDR leader, Enrique Alfarez, they became compelled to work in collaboration with DRU in order to get some protection. In 1981, the merger FMLN and FDR was announced in Mexico because FDR and FMLN became united to work for a common cause with a same strategy.
In December 1980, another high-impact incident happened in which four churchwomen got murdered in El Salvador. All of those women belonged to the United States of America. That incident drew the ire of the government of USA which resulted in suspending the program of limited military aid which was granted by the Jimmy Carter’s administration to the junta government. Here it is necessary to mention that the Romero government had rejected the program of US military aid in 1977. It was rejected because Carter’s administration had planned to link payout to the human rights compliance. The investigations which were being made by the Salvadoran government not only frustrated US officials but also resulted in enhancing the suspicion that high-ranking officers of Salvadoran security forces were trying to hide the investigation details regarding the issue.
The counter offensive of FMLN began in January 1981 and faced a lot of difficulties and hardships at the early stages due to several reasons. One of the reasons was that guerrillas' logistics network had not got required ability to support a massive operation on a vast level. Another reason was that the guerrilla groups neither had enough weapons with them nor they were very well trained to carry out a massive operation. These were the reasons due to which the Salvadoran armed forces were initially able to survive and fight back against the guerrilla attacks. The aim of FMLN was to get hold on Morazan Department and to declare it a liberated territory but they failed to achieve the objective of conquering Morazan. On a basic level, it can be said that the Salvadoran population provided a very limited level of support to the FMLN guerrillas. Although the offensive failed to bring the FMLN to power, it did mark the beginning of a permanent civil war (Peterson 1997).
Despite of failure at several fronts, FMLN kept hold of various military strongholds and became successful in getting international attention towards the critical conditions of El Salvador (Popkin 2000). FMLN was formally recognized as representative political force in August 1981 by France and Mexico who called for a negotiated resolution between the military groups. The guerrillas of FMLN were given a very hard training which enabled them to gain control of northern and eastern areas of El Salvador. Not only that, they also destroyed power lines, blew up several bridges, and tried to destabilize the Salvadorian economy by burning the coffee plantations. Various large sections of the departments of Morazán and Chalatenango also came under the control of FMLN, which throughout the rest of the civil war remained under FMLN control. The activists of the movement included all both genders of all age groups. Those activists or revolutionaries were given guerrilla training in the FMLN camps in mountains and jungles of El Salvador in order to train them to fight against the military establishment.
At the end of 1980, the country was in the midst of an open savagery and at the beginnings of the war that the FMLN was about to undertake (Aquino and Lassalle-Klein 2006). El Salvador’s civil war officially began in 1980 in which the Salvadoran government openly provided support to the military death squads. El Salvador witnessed a brutal civil war fought mainly in rural areas (Stanley 1996). The task of military death squad was to kill every such person who appeared to be a supporter of the revolution. The most usual victims of military death squads were middle class and lower middle class citizens. These included the unionists, farmers, clerks and several university officials. That civil war was also supported by the United States as military aid was being provided to the Salvadoran military by the United States of America in order to crush the civilians who were supporting the guerrilla groups. As a consequence of the war, at least 70,000 people lost their precious lives. The impact of the civil war on this tiny country almost defies analysis (Murray 1997). The brutal civil war raged throughout the decade and claimed more than seventy-five thousand lives in all (Burke 2000). This enormous amount of casualties resulted from target killings and heavy bombing from the US backed military death squads on the civilians of El Salvador throughout the countryside (Hayes and Tombs 2001). The civil war not only resulted in a large number of casualties but also it brought a worse impact on the country’s infrastructure as all roads, bridges and buildings got destroyed due to heavy bombing. It continued for nine years when in 1989, six priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter got murdered at the University of Central America. This act of violence brought the international community into action. As the military death squads defended their stand of killing any suspected person, the FMLN guerrilla groups also continued blowing-up bridges, destroying roads and other combination channels, destroying coffee plantations, cutting power lines, and anything else in order to destabilize the government. The FMLN not only restricted their efforts to destroy the economy of the country but also murdered and kidnapped several government officials of El Salvador. Guerrilla efforts became more advanced and accurate with the passage of time. They also became more strategic and tactical than before. They also made improvements in their armed attacks as they progressed from using knife, blades and small pistols to using grenade launchers and other heavy machine guns.
The civil war took a very long time despite of the efforts to bring an end to the war from both parties. FMLN refused to participate in the presidential elections because they felt that the results would be unfair (Whitfield 1995). Due to this reason they boycotted the presidential elections. And when the FMLN organized the peace talks in order to settle down the conflicting issues, the Salvadoran government also refused to participate.
It is common belief today that the Salvadoran civil war would have ended a lot earlier if the United States had not interfered in the war between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN guerrilla groups. The United States kept on supporting the military death squads in their operation against the revolutionaries because El Salvador had exhausted its resources fighting itself and the only way for the el Salvadoran government was to take financial and military aid from the United States in order to carry on the operation. There came a time when the United States suspended providing financial and military aid to the Salvadoran government temporarily due to the rape and murder of four US churchwomen in 1980, the successful Nicaragua revolution compelled President Reagan to undo the decision of suspending military and financial aid to El Salvador. So the aid continued to support the El Salvadoran government in continuing fight against the FMLN revolutionaries till 1990. It was a very heavy aid provided by the United States as nearly 1.5 million dollars a day were being spent during the peak time of the war. Two years before the end of the civil war, the United States finally decided to suspend the military aid and transform it into the construction aid. It happened due to the involvement of United Nations in the conflict in 1990 when Congressman Moakley confirmed the reports regarding human rights violations by the United States and the military death squads.
Some people argued that America should not have interfered in Central America because El Salvador was well prepared to face the challenge independently. But President Ronald Reagan believed that America’s interference is necessary as the Salvadoran conflict could destabilize the entire region. This is why some people supported America’s decision to get involved in the conflict because they agreed with President Ronald Reagan’s view regarding the issue.
Whether the US was right or wrong in interfering in the Salvadoran civil war is an issue which is under debate even today. There are so many questions whose actual answers are yet to be revealed. Was US interference necessary? Did US actually want to end the conflict by honest means? Did the government of the United States really do not know about the killing of thousands of the innocent villagers and unarmed citizens? These are all those questions which are yet to be answered accurately in order to decide whether the United States interference was a real need of that time or else.
Aquino, M. and R. Lassalle-Klein. 2006. Love that Produces Hope: The Thought of Ignacio Ellacuria. Minnesota: Liturgical Press.
Burke, K. 2000. The Ground Beneath the Cross: The Theology of Ignacio Ellacuria. Washington: Georgetown University Press.
DiPiazza, F. 2007. El Salvador in Pictures. U.S.A: Visual Geography Series.
Hayes, M. and D. Tombs. 2001. Truth and Memory: The Church and Human Rights in El Salvador and Guatemala. Herefordshire: Gracewing.
Murray, K. 1997. El Salvador: Peace on Trial. UK: Oxfam.
Peterson, A. 1997. Martyrdom and the Politics of Religion: Politics Catholicism in El Salavador’s Civil War. Albany: SUNY Press.
Popkin, M. 2000. Peace without Justice: Obstacles to Building the Rule of Law in El Salvador. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Stanley, W. 1996. The Protection Racket State: Elite Politics, Military Extortion, and Civil War in El Salvador. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Whirfield, T. 1995. Paying the Price: Ignacio Ellacuria and the Murdered Jesuits of El Salvador. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Wood, E. 2003. Insyrgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador. New York: Cambridge University Press.